How Meghalaya’s vendors fought the pandemic and an apathetic govt

The recent political turmoil in Shillong has almost pushed the ongoing pandemic into the background, but it is no secret that the state has battled the pandemic at a large scale, and amid all the despair and deaths, there have also been stories of hope, success and public awareness. 

One such success story emerged from the streets of Shillong’s Khyndailad, more popularly known as Police Bazaar. There roams a chanawala, who became a viral sensation for his quirky sense of promotion. Umesh Sah proudly declares that he is vaccinated on his chana box that he hangs around his neck. “Bimari se bachna hain toh vaccine lagwana hain” – to protect oneself from diseases, one must get vaccinated, were the wise words of Sah, at a time when vaccine hesitancy is a common phenomenon globally.

The impact of the pandemic has been global, and the economic devastation has been no less severe closer to home. According to a survey by a non-profit organisation, ActionAid India, more than 80 per cent of workers in the informal sector lost their jobs in India due to Covid-19 lockdowns and their aftereffects. 

Most affected were people employed in the informal sector like the daily wage earners, artisans, street vendors, small entrepreneurs, and hawkers, who were already a part of the marginalised community in the country, and it was no different in Meghalaya

A street vendor

Shane Thabah, Secretary of the Meghalaya & Greater Shillong Progressive Hawkers & Street Vendors’ Association (MGSPHSVA), said many people lost their jobs owing to the nationwide lockdown last year and took to vending to fend for themselves. 

“While the lockdown was declared to put a curb on the virus last year, it was like a death knell for our people in the unorganised sector,” Shane told EastMojo. “We set up shops along the footpaths in the city on an odd-even system, based on membership IDs, despite prohibitory orders from the district administration, after five months of being entirely out of work,” he added.

Knowing the devastating consequences of the virus-induced lockdowns all too well, executive members of the association, who are also a part of the hawking and vending community, went around educating people most hard hit by the virus, about the virus. Shane says, “We distributed pamphlets in Khasi and Hindi that explained the need to wear a mask, follow hand hygiene and adopt all other covid appropriate behaviours.” The association, along with the National Health Mission, successfully organised a two-week long training programme for 800 street vendors and hawkers in October last year. 

Initially, after the number of cases plateaued in the state and the administration began the unlocking process, street vendors did not have permission to resume their jobs. “We had to protest to allow these people to hawk,” said an invitee member of the association. “The vendors handed out pamphlets to customers who did not wear their masks properly and educated them on the importance of masks,” recalls the member, guffawing, impressed with how far the vendors had come regarding their knowledge of the virus. 

Just as their lives were limping back into some semblance of order, the second wave hit, and state-wide lockdowns were announced in Meghalaya. “This time, affording two square meals a day was also burdensome to most members of the association,” says Shane, with a hint of sadness in his otherwise cheerful voice. Executive members of the union then got together and held food distribution drives for daily wagers, which included street vendors and domestic workers, labourers, and those whose livelihoods were deeply impacted by the second wave.

The state government’s delayed and inadequate handing out of grants further added to the workers’ woes in the unorganised sector. The Conrad Sangma government promised two income support schemes for people in the unorganised sector last March 28, 2020. One was Rs 2100 for taxi drivers, labourers, domestic workers, hawkers, etc., under the Chief Minister’s Relief Against Wage Loss (CMRAWL). The other was a one time aid of Rs 5000 for the Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Board (BOCW). 

Between July and August 2020, a progressive people’s organisation of Meghalaya, Thma U Rangli-Juki (TUR), and its sister branch, Workers Power of Meghalaya, surveyed whether the beneficiaries had received the assured sum. The findings revealed that most of the beneficiaries had either received no payment or only received partial payment. Subsequently, TUR filed an RTI with the Department of Labour that disclosed that many people who had applied did not find their names on the list. 

The Labour Department said that banks could transfer Rs 700 to some beneficiaries, after which the account refused to accept the next instalments. Angela Rangad, the leader of TUR, finds this hard to believe. She says, “This is a joke. More than 50 per cent of people only received part payment – if a bank account receives 700 rupees, it can also receive 2100.” She added, “A government should not be defensive but should try to rectify anomalies.”

Armed forces removing protesters

In June 2021, TUR had submitted to the government a 1400 page long complaint that contained messages of grievances from the people who were to receive the state aid. However, according to Angela Rangad, the government remained unresponsive. This apathy from the state government prompted Angela Rangad to launch her unique solitary sit-in protest outside the Meghalaya secretariat. Support poured in from all corners, from ordinary citizens to activists from various states in the country. She says, “This sitting alone at one level was forced by the unique situation created by the pandemic which has allowed the state to control protests and mass gatherings.” She adds, “But I could do this supposedly solo protest because I knew that I was part of a larger working-class mobilisation that was in support of this challenge.”  

Eventually, the District Commissioner of East Khasi Hills served her a letter to vacate the area immediately. Angela Rangad remained unflinching and continued her protest outside the Secretariat amid heavy police presence. “If you saw the reaction of the government and the citizens, I think this worked – the state can be rattled not only through loud and macho voices but also a daily speaking of truth to power, a truth based on a commitment to the ideas of justice and equality,” says Rangad. 

Soon, a meeting was called by the Principal Secretary of the Labour Department, GHP Raju, to resolve the matter. After the meeting, Angela Rangad suspended her protest till August 15, 2021, to give the government time to rectify their errors. “The government was rattled and wanted to meet me and other workers’ organisations to tell us about their attempts to finally transfer the money to the workers.” She adds, “This was a change from the time when the Chief Minister to the Deputy Chief Minister and the bureaucrats had all denied that there was any problem with the scheme.”

The MGSPHSVA also continued with their work of educating people about COVID-related issues. Along with spreading awareness on the virus’s lethality, the organisation even educated people from the community on the importance of the Covid-19 vaccine long before the nationwide vaccination drive began. This resulted in the uptake of the Covid-19 vaccine within the community of informal workers. “More than half of our 1500 members across the state have already been vaccinated so far,” declares a very proud Shane. “We came up with the idea of our vendors displaying their vaccination status, which the district administration acknowledged and later urged all business owners to do the same,” he added. 

As a way to encourage others, every executive member of MGSPHSVA went ahead and got themselves vaccinated first. This act also expelled fear and doubt from the minds of people within the larger community.

Shane says that it is heartening to see the image of Umesh Sah go viral on social media and earn praises from people all over the country. He says that this motivates him further to work for the betterment of the marginalised and the forgotten.

A COVID-19 campaign

Several good samaritans from the city came forward to help Umesh Sah after his picture spread like wildfire on social media. One out of them was Priyankur Nandy, better known as AnKy, whose makeSomeomeSMILE group of charitable volunteers came together to help Umesh Sah monetarily as well as by delivering a month’s grocery supplies to him. AnKy, who was the first person to share Umesh Sah’s video on Instagram, says, “Umesh Sah is an inspiration to every person out there who is reluctant to take the covid jab.”

As the invitee member of MGSPHSVA mentioned about vendors educating their customers about covid-19, Umesh Sah also highlights the importance of getting vaccinated to his customers who come to buy his chana-badam, typical to the streets of Shillong. “I tell my customers that it is the vaccine that will help us claim victory over this pandemic,” says the humble chanawala, blissfully unaware of how far his fame has reached. 

The author is a Shillong-born, Mumbai-based journalist and the co-founder of WebTokri

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